Feast Day December 4
Patron of • firefighters • military engineers • architects • builders • carpenters • construction workers • masons • tilers • mathematicians • miners • brassworkers • geologists • brewers • Syria
invoked against lightning, storms, fire, sudden death, & impenitence
Barbara was one of the most popular saints of the Middle Ages, venerated as early as the seventh century in both the East and West, however, her story is now considered to be mostly romantic fiction. Some versions maintain she lived around 200 A.D., others 100 years later, and still others that she was martyred in the early ninth century. The setting of Barbara’s tale varies from Antioch to Heliopolis, to Rome or Tuscany. The earliest known images of her date from the eighth century.
By all accounts, Barbara was a beautiful young woman whose tyrannical, jealous father, Dioscorus, kept her imprisoned in a tower, protecting her from the world–at least until he could find a suitor that suited him. He possibly also wanted to keep her from constantly helping the poor. In his defense, as a believer in the Greco-Roman deities it’s understandable that he might have wanted to protect her from the compelling new religion that was life-threatening to profess.
Barbara apparently rejected any of her father’s ideas of husband-material, and so stayed in her tower for years. Meanwhile her father commissioned an elaborate bath house to be built where Barbara could receive her suitors.
During one of Dioscorus’ lengthy business trips away from home, Barbara somehow fell under the influence of Origen and Valentinian, great Christian theologians. Some say they put books in the basket which was raised and lowered to bring her food and laundry. But however she heard about the new religion, she had plenty of time to contemplate it as she gazed from the windows of her tower at the countryside and the life around her.
She is said to have persuaded the workmen building the bathhouse to incorporate three windows in honor of the Trinity. When Dioscorus returned, he was informed that the design change was his daughter’s idea. (hence her patronage of architects.) She then admitted her conversion and said that the windows symbolized the “true light.” Enraged, Dioscorus tried to kill her on the spot, but she was miraculously whisked away.
One tale says that she hid in a mine shaft (hence her association with miners) but was betrayed by a shepherd. As Divine punishment all his sheep were turned into beetles.
Her father then dragged her before the Prefect who condemned her to execution, but first she was to be tortured in various ways, all of which were obstructed by heavenly intervention. Dioscorus (perhaps by command of the Prefect) finally had to resort to killing her with his own sword, whereupon he was struck by lightning and turned to ashes. Barbara became protectress against lightning, thunder and fire, and later all who handle explosives, including artillerymen and miners.
Though her biography was officially denied by Rome in 1969, her popularity as a patroness and her frequent representation in art, including as a princess in a tower with three windows, the palm of martyrdom, a cannon or the chalice of happy death, has ensured her continued prominence.
Barbara’s name means “Stranger” and her day, December 4, is celebrated in mining communities throughout the world. The Order of Saint Barbara, an honorary military society of the United States Field Artillery, traditionally recognizes it with a formal Dining-In or military dinner. Ordnancemen, regardless of the flags under which they served through the centuries, have claimed Barbara as their patron saint.
- In Provence, wheat is germinated on Saint Barbara’s Day; the higher the wheat grows, the greater the prosperity.
- In the Caribbean, practitioners of Santeria (the African Yoruba tradition) equate St. Barbara with the god Shango.
- The City of Santa Barbara on the California coast was named after Barbara because Spanish explorer Juan Cabrillo first set foot there on December 4.
- The fairy tale “Rapunzel” also appears to have its origins in Barbara’s legend.